The New book looks at the murder of Frances Coles and asks that very question.
I wanted to write her story because I believe no-one had ever done justice to the narrative around her death. For over a hundred years she has been largely ignored or simply lumped into the Jack the Ripper saga almost as an afterthought. A Victorian murder never likely to be solved because she had probably been a victim of the man in the cloak and tall hat that had stalked Whitechapel throughout 1888. But is that true?
The question I asked myself was whether it was a reasonable conclusion to draw or was that conclusion flawed? Did Jack the Ripper wander back into Whitechapel three years after the last of what are commonly known as the canonical five, or did another murderer stalk those same streets?
I’ve never been wholly convinced by the notion that the murders back in 1888 were all the work of one man. Take a look at the murders of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. In particular the detail around their deaths. In many ways they are all different. Some on the street, one definitely indoors, some mutilated, some not and so on. Then there are the others either side of those five murders. Rose Mylett, Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Alice McKenzie, Frances Coles and added to this list all those that got away. So, to my mind at least, that suggested multiple murderers and a list of crimes lumped together by media, police, and a newspaper reading public all too eager to accept the so-called, ‘informed view.’
Hollywood favoured the guy in the tall hat, the mysterious, cloaked killer never seen until he struck. Others the mad man, the American, the artist, the policeman or the doctor. Take your pick, they can all be made to fit. But if any did, of course, there would be no more books about Jack the Ripper would there?
So, in the case of Frances Coles, pointing a finger in his direction keeps his story alive and ensures her murder remains forever unsolved. A good enough reason I thought to re-open her case and take a more detailed look. What that research revealed is not just how complex the case against the Ripper really is but also just how macabre it is. Here is a man operating at the dead of night, in most cases on the street, surrounded by police and carrying out the most horrific, brutal, bloody attacks on women then escaping unseen. How? Surely, to my mind at least, not possible. A killer in plain sight?
It must be a possibility, which helps explain how he then comes to be associated with the Coles murder in 1891, some three years after his supposed exist from the Whitechapel scene. If you can’t solve the crime, use him, this almost supernatural being, to explain why. But is that really fair?
There are other factors in play in the Coles murder, none of which I suspected when I began writing. Factors which influenced police thinking and the subsequent murder enquiry but not how the media reported it. In other words, the police view of her death did not fit in with theirs and it was the press view that influenced public perception. That same view filtered through the following years and almost guaranteed the Frances Coles murder would forever be associated with Jack the Ripper and a question mark.
But if not him then who? Hopefully the book answers that question.